Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Serial Obsessions

In directing this tiny house build, I've continuously obsessed on a long rotating loop of items; siding, exterior wood finish, flooring, wall paneling, interior wood finish, kitchen counter, sink, faucet, refrigerator, stove, bathroom sink, faucet, toilet, shower enclosure, bathroom walls - and that's just the portion of the list that's at the top of my mind at the moment. If I think too long I'll come up with several more things I have to research and choose. I need to gather quotes for a custom front door. I need to figure out lighting fixtures, because the ones I have aren't doing the job to my satisfaction.

When did I become so picky?

I can rate the complexity level of my days based on the number of things I choose and buy for the house. Today I bought Arborcoat Natural Transparent Stain for my troublesome exterior siding and Benwood Stays Clear for our solid doug fir T & G flooring. I wanted something to protect the wood and create a scrubbable, durable surface, yet keep the color as close as possible to the original pale pinkish tan tones of our beautiful fresh cut douglas fir. The colors are lovely, mostly neutral (not yellow at all) and more importantly pale, which will help keep the whole interior light and bright. I wanted to avoid a high gloss finish because it looks like plastic, highlights every scuff and scrape, and makes it hard to fix blemishes without a serious chore sanding, touching up, and blending the repair into the rest of the field.

You would think it would be easy to pick two items. How could that possibly be difficult? Exterior finish, interior finish. So simple.

But I want something attractive, durable, natural looking, low VOC, low gloss, and I have to see it to believe it. I asked around and the most enthusiastic recommendation I got was for Plaza Paint, so I headed off to their little shop on Central near the square in Healdsburg. The guys were very nice, and well informed on the long term benefits of their best finishes. Turns out California has enacted legislation that will ban most oil based finishes over the next two years. If I used something classic like Cabot's, whomever's in charge of maintenance for this little beauty three or more years down the line will have to completely remove the existing oil finish and replace it with one of the new generation waterborne finishes. So why not go waterborne now? Besides, it sounds so much cooler than water based.

Seriously, from everything wood experts tell me, you might as well not even bother with traditional water based finishes outdoors. They just don't do the job in the weather. Oil based finishes tend to be more toxic and are difficult and complicated to clean up, but last up to three or four years before they have to be topped off with a fresh coat. Waterborne finishes are new enough that people haven't seen much of them going through years in our climate, so the recommendations are a little hesitant. All the science tells us they should outlast even oil based finishes, and woodworkers are beginning to embrace them in all their low VOC, long lasting, low maintenance glory.

The gentlemen at Plaza showed me their Arborcoat line of  waterborne finish and I picked out a couple transparent stains to try. They would have been happy to apply anything I wanted on my wood sample if I had brought it in, but I didn't - so I bought one pint each of Transparent Stain in Natural and in Cedar Tone. I took them home and brushed them on a cedar 2x6 end we trimmed off the fascia board. The Natural  deepened and heightened the tones of wood, which brought out a certain amount of yellow tinge as well. The Cedar Tone stain definitely put a red-orange cast over the wood, and two out of three people I showed the comparison sample to preferred the Cedar Tone. The comment I heard more than once was "Cedar is supposed to be red".

Despite the yellow cast brought out by the Natural stain, I still hated the idea of tinting the siding orange. I just like the natural color of the wood too much. I was still torn between my gut and public opinion (albeit a very small sample of the "public"), so I went back to the store, took my actual siding sample with me, and had them apply the Natural and Cedar Tone Transparent Stains in the store side by side so I could finally decide.

In the end, I went with my gut and chose the Natural, and got the compatible clear protective finish to go over the top of it. The fellows at Plaza tell me I should use one coat of each. Afterwards, one coat of clear finish every (or every other) year will keep the wood protected without any additional steps for many years.

While we waited for my Arborcoat samples to dry, I picked some brains about indoor wood floor finish. I like the product they showed me so much I bought that one right away - no overnight agonizing required. At first we looked at stains, and once again I was looking for the most natural color, closest to the the shades of the newly milled wood. That eliminated almost every stain there, so naturally I picked out Natural and another light rosy brown shade called Fruitwood to sample. After I saw them on my planed doug fir, I thought the Fruitwood was pretty, but my wood was still prettier. The Natural intensified the natural colors by three or four shades. Then I asked about a protective finish, and let them know my main concern was avoiding the yellowing I associated with oil based finishes. They showed me Benwood Stays Clear Low Lustre, and I was delighted. They brushed on two coats and the wood grain was nearly the same clean pale range of cream buff tan and pink as before. They helped me figure out how much I would need and that was that.

I walked out of there - after spending $234 - with my exterior stain and clear coat, and my interior clear coat. The good stuff is not cheap, but I believe it's worth it.

One more piece of the project decided; another part I can't wait to see done, so I can find out whether my decisions yield the results I want. What do you think - Natural (bottom) or Cedar Tone (top)?

*VOC stands for volatile organic compounds. They include a wide variety of both man-made and naturally occurring chemical compounds which can adversely affect the environment and human health, particularly when confined indoors. VOCs in building materials are mandated to be reduced through recent green building legislation in California to less than 250 gpl - anyone have more details? Let me know, I'd love to geek out on it.